When COVID-19 doesn't kill, a broken heart can

Debbie Goff

The call from the nursing home came on Saturday morning: “Your mom is at end of life. You may now come and have an in-room visit.”

I got in my car and started the seven-hour drive to her nursing home in a suburb of Chicago. Fate would have it that 1-70 was down to one lane with construction. Traffic came to a screeching halt. I sat there in my car not moving for what seemed to be an eternity, reflecting on my 94-year-old mom’s life and how COVID-19 prevented me from seeing her for the previous eight months.  

In my mom's nursing home unit, she is the only person still alive. Her seven friends died after the start of the mandatory shutdown of in-person visits. None died from COVID-19. They just slowly died over the past eight months.

My sisters and brother live in Chicago and were allowed to do “window visits.” It was heartbreaking. My mom has macular degeneration, is hard of hearing and has a bit of dementia. The aide would social-distance her wheelchair 10 feet from the window. My siblings would shout through the screen: “Mom, it’s your kids — Barb, Diane and Jack.”

I would be on FaceTime on my sister’s iPhone at least 10 feet from my mom looking through a screened-in window. Our mom would say, “I can’t see you, where are you? When are you coming to see me? I miss you.” I would cry after each call. 

On that Saturday, I arrived late; mom was already asleep. Sunday morning we were handed N95 masks, gowns and gloves. The four of us entered her room. 

"Mom, it’s Debbie, your favorite youngest daughter!"

"Mom, it’s Barb, your favorite middle daughter!"

"Mom, it's Diane, your favorite oldest daughter!"

"Mom, it’s Jack, your favorite son!"

We would always joke around with our mom like this. Her eyes opened only to see four unrecognizable people standing over her in masks, gowns and gloves.

Knowing we were COVID-19 negative thanks to rapid testing, we removed our masks and gloves. I held her hand. Her eyes lit up and she asked “Where have you been?” She squeezed my hand and never let go.

We talked, we laughed, we fed her coconut ice cream with a Starbucks latte, her favorites. After four days of daily visits with her four kids, she was back to baseline and no longer at "end of life." 

On my drive back, I reflected on my mom's life. She has had a blessed life; however, we could not imagine her dying alone thinking all four of her children had abandoned her. I thought of all the other nursing home patients who might not die from COVID-19 but will die because of COVID-19 nursing home rules.

I am an infectious diseases pharmacist. I understand why these rules are in effect. But there's no denying COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on nursing home patients in a multiplicity of ways. Not only have they had the highest death rate from COVID-19, but they also have suffered immense emotional pain from the lack of physical contact with loved ones.

According to the Centers for Medicaid Services, more than 63,000 nursing home patients have died from COVID-19. But these numbers will never be able to calculate the elderly who die in nursing homes during this pandemic from loneliness or a broken heart. How ironic is it that the restrictions put in place to protect nursing home patients from COVID-19 ultimately ended up killing many of them. 

Death from a broken heart is real. It turned out that my mom’s “end of life” diagnosis actually saved her from dying from a broken heart.  

Debbie Goff, 63, who lives in Westerville, is a professor of pharmacy practice and an infectious disease specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center as well as a global expert adviser to the World Health Organization.

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We invite readers of all ages to submit an original and previously unpublished personal essay of musings related to life during the current pandemic for Coronavirus Chronicles. Submissions should run no longer than about 600 words and should include the name, age, hometown and phone number of the author, as well as a current photo. All accepted essays become property of The Dispatch. Send essays by email: talking@dispatch.com.

Debbie Goff


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